Jesus and the Bronze Serpent
Scripture Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Jesus and the Bronze Serpent
Last week, in our Old Testament passage, we read about the Ten Commandments, which told us not to make any idols or to worship them. And today we read that Moses advised his people to make a bronze serpent to look at when they had been bitten by a snake in order to be healed. There are so many weird things going on here, I don’t know where to begin. The commandment we read in Exodus 20 probably means not to make anything to use as an object of worship in the place of God, so maybe the argument can be made that we are talking about two different things. But even if this is the case, why pray to a bronze serpent, when they could just pray to God? Am I missing something here? This is simply weird.
I will always have a fond place in my heart for our passage from the Gospel of John, for it was the first passage that I was assigned to write a sermon on while still going to school, a sermon I don’t remember and don’t have any desire to find and read again. My main memory of the sermon was having to totally rewrite it once I actually started trying to preach it, for I had written it like I would a paper for any other class, which doesn’t work when you are presenting it to an audience as a sermon. And there was that strange mention of the bronze serpent, which meant I had to study the passage from Numbers, too. I still don’t think I understand why the bronze serpent was even necessary.
For everyone not named Ken or Gordon, you might be surprised to learn that there is a third passage that mentions the bronze serpent, 2 Kings 18, which states:
In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. For he held fast to the LORD. He did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments that the LORD commanded Moses. And the LORD was with him; wherever he went out, he prospered.
What do you think of that? If the bronze serpent was such a great thing, why did Hezekiah, one of the best kings ever, feel the need to destroy it? If Hezekiah kept the Law of Moses, and was devoted to God, then why did God think the serpent was a good thing to begin with?
And yet, it was important enough to Jesus to talk about it many centuries later. Not long ago, we talked about looking for signs, and to not test God by doing so, but I don’t think that is what we are talking about here. Certainly, turning to a bronze serpent in a time of trial might seem to us to be looking for a sign, but the difference here is that it would have been a set object that would release the power of God for a specific purpose, not some elusive indication of that power. The people would have known about it before they needed it.
Does anyone struggle with understanding the need for this bronze serpent, or what it means? Would you like to share why? It makes me very uneasy, for it sounds like idolatry to me, kind of like the golden calf. You’d think people would start worshiping the serpent instead of God, associating the power of healing with the serpent. Maybe that’s why Hezekiah destroyed it, for it was no longer being used for its original purpose. When they were healed, to whom would they give the credit? Why wasn’t the power used through the Levites or Moses or someone else who represented God to the Israelites?
As you may know, our denomination and others have been working lately to fight racism and colonialism within the church and our culture. This includes looking around our church and trying to identify things that might make some people uneasy, such as portraits of a very white Jesus to people of color, knowing that Jesus most likely didn’t look anything like such pictures. We may find them comforting, but others may not. We need to be aware of what symbols and pictures and other things represent for different people.
And what about the cross on the altar and other places? How different is it from the bronze serpent? Doesn’t it represent the power of God, and the sacrifice of Jesus? Is it OK as long as it serves as a reminder, but do people take it too far if they start to worship the cross instead of God? Where is the point when respect for such objects becomes unhealthy? In other traditions, some practices make us feel uneasy that are very meaningful to them. We always need to be mindful of what we do here, asking if we are truly honoring God, or not.
Our passage from John 3 is one of the most famous passage of the Bible, 3:16 and following, but our reading also includes the last verse of the previous story, about Nicodemus and the need for being born again. We tend to memorize John 3:16, but forget that the two passages are joined together, with a reference to the bronze serpent tying them together. Going back a few verses before our reading, we find:
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:9-15)
What does lifting up the serpent have to do with the lifting up of the Son of Man? What if any similarity do the two have? And why does Jesus talk about the serpent and Himself being lifted up right after He has told Nicodemus that he must be “born again” or, in an alternate translation that is equally valid, “born from above.”
Looking back on our reading from Numbers, we find that once the serpent had been made, it was put up on a pole, so the people had to look up to it to be healed. Similarly, Jesus had to be lifted up on the cross in order to provide salvation for us. The pole and the serpent did not contain the power of God, just as the cross itself did not contain the power of God, but Jesus did, although forsaken for a time while He was there. But both Jesus and the serpent were elevated, and once lifted up, unleashed the power of God.
In both cases, we struggle to understand just what is going on, for God’s ways are beyond our comprehension. However, the need for the manifestation of God’s power is the same in both Numbers and the Gospel of John: it was required because of our lack of faith. The Israelites grumbled and were impatient, questioning God, and snakes were sent to punish them. Looking at the bronze serpent showed their faith in God’s salvation. Jesus had to die on the cross to pay for our sin and evil. It was needed because of our slavery to sin and our deserving of punishment for it. But God in His grace supplied the answer to our weakness. The bronze serpent was used for one occasion, but Jesus’ death on the cross paid our debt once and for all, as our Lord said:
So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:14-16)
A little later in the Gospel of John, Jesus makes it clear that all of this will be achieved by the power and authority of God:
Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him. (John 8:28-30)
And Jesus says in John 12
Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” (John 12: 31-36)
As the Israelites cried out in their distress, and looked at the serpent, God healed them. Now, when we look to God and cry out in our distress, we receive His comfort and salvation through the cross of Christ. The power of God is showered upon the one who humbly comes before God, seeking His forgiveness and healing. As our Psalm for today says:
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy. (Psalm 107: 19-22)
Whatever we are going through, we look to God for deliverance. But instead of the bronze serpent, we lift our hearts to God. What other things do we lift up? Our prayers? Our praises? Our hands and hearts? Sometimes they are positive attitudes, sometimes they are complaints and worries. That’s OK. All are worthy of God’s consideration and time. Any other thoughts on how to apply today’s Scripture lessons?
We don’t need a bronze serpent or even a cross when we cry out to God in times of need, we have direct access to Him through the Holy Spirit based on what Jesus has already done for us. Whether we are here in church, at home, driving down the road in our car, wherever we may be, we can lift up our prayers to God and know that He is listening. Because Jesus was lifted up on the cross, we can lift up our hearts to God in praise, thanksgiving, and supplication, and look forward to the day when we too will be lifted up and dwell with Him forever in Heaven.